Derek Mooney (above) overhears Trump and anti-Trump voices in Washington DC this week (top pic by Derek)
I write this week’s column while sitting in my hotel room, very late on Monday night/Tuesday morning. I am about 800m from the Pentagon, just outside Washington DC.
I am mainly here on business, though I should make it clear that my proximity to the Pentagon is completely unrelated to my work. I am at Pentagon City because hotels here cost a lot less than those downtown.
It is a trip that I usually make around this time of this year, though this time I decided to take a few ‘personal days’ beforehand rather than afterwards.
I only mention this as a way of explaining that this is my first time being in the US for Veterans Day. Veterans’ Day in the U.S. corresponds with WWI Armistice day – the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Though it was officially on Sunday, yesterday (Monday) is the public holiday in lieu.
It is why this hotel, indeed most of the local bars and restaurants, have been thronged for the past few days with military veterans of all ages, along with their families, coming to visit the nearby Arlington military cemetery.
Strolling to a local mall on Sunday, I was struck by the number of times I heard young locals say “thank you for your service” to ex-servicemen and women they passed on the street.
While this is perhaps not so unexpected in an area so filled with people who either work in the Pentagon or are associated somehow with the military, it is still unusual to hear it and – notwithstanding the legitimate concerns about US military actions in various parts of the world – even a bit moving.
If only our government held the service of those currently serving in Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Defence Forces in such a high regard, but that is an article for another day.
Given the number of out of town veterans about, I tried to channel my inner Maeve Binchy and began earwigging conversations in bars and restaurants to hear what, if anything, they were saying about President Trump.
It was mixed result.
It ranged from the 32-year-old barman, in a great neighbourhood bar about an hour’s drive south of Arlington, who talked about how he can only find bar work despite having a degree in economics, to the local baristas who have recently come to live in the US and build their futures here. These were not Trump voters.
I did overhear a few possible Trump voters, some even in the bright red “Make America Great Again” Maga baseball caps, but not that many. My heart started to lift on Sunday morning as I listened eagerly to a married couple, in their 60s, at a neighbouring table at breakfast, speak disapprovingly of Trump’s behaviour in Paris.
While both were genuinely irritated and even embarrassed by Trump’s failure to attend some events due to rain, it was still not a deal breaker to them. “At least he gets things done”, said the wife, as they discussed Trump’s counter balancing merits. Her husband agreed, citing the number of new jobs and record stock market highs since Trump took the White House.
Remember this is a conversation between them. I was just an eavesdropper. That said, I nearly had to be restrained from intervening, shouting: “So what? Mussolini made the trains to run on time… was that worth the brutal fascism?”.
Fortunately, I didn’t. Partially because this old Mussolini trope is false – Fake News so to speak – but mainly because they were just a nice couple having a private chat as they watched the news reports from the Paris Armistice day commemorations.
They were not festooned with Trump hats or National Rifle Association t-shirts. They were a courteous, well-spoken, decent, middle-of-the-road couple in Washington for Veterans’ Day.
They did not match the mental image we have of Trump supporters, but could it possibly be that our mental picture of Trump voters is warped and that they represent most Trump voters?
Yes, they were both white. Yes, they were both in their sixties. But they were also something else – (a) they were not from a big city – from what I could glean in their chat with the waitress, they came from rural Carolina and (b) neither were college-educated – though this is more a hunch than a statement of unimpeachable fact.
What they were was an illustration of the reality that the big political divide in the U.S. today is between those who live in the large urban sprawls and those who live in rural, small town America. It is also between those with a third level education and those without one.
The divide is about a large part of America that feels passed over.
This is the America that has not felt the economic benefits of the success of the tech giants or globalisation. It is also a big chunk of America, especially in the old industrial heartlands of small-town Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Michigan that once solidly voted Democrat.
Like it or not, there is a sizeable section of this non-urban, non-college population who perceive Trump as delivering on the things he promised. It is not a majority view – indeed the results of the midterms point to Trump having a major battle on his hands for re-election in 2020 – but it is still a sizeable and consistent minority.
Back in 2016, Trump won the Presidency with 46% of the national vote. Last week he secured a 45% approval rating. True, it was lower a few months back, but while some supporters may abandon him briefly, he still has a solid wall of support that will not desert just because the “big city” newspapers and national TV pundits don’t like him.
If anything, this “urban” disapproval may be one of his biggest plusses – though the biggest factor in his 2016 win still remains the fact that he was running against the second least liked major-party nominee of all time: Hilary Clinton. By the way, Trump was the first.
Where the Democrats won last week, their margins of victory (in the House of Representatives contests it was about +7%) were roughly in line with Trump’s net margin of disapproval (over approval) which has lately been around -9%. The health warning which accompanies this is, of course, the fact that Hilary Clinton (even with her historically high disapproval rating) won the popular vote in 2016 and got 2.9 million more votes than Trump.
What seems to have changed since 2016 is not that the Democrats have gotten their act together, but rather than the increasing number of self-identifying independent voters, especial ly those in suburban America, are backing Democrats.
The strong showing of Beto O’Rourke in once solidly Republican Texas may be a pointer to where the Democrats need to go. In 2016 Trump beat Clinton by a margin of around 800k votes (4.7million to 3.9 million). Last week O’Rourke slashed it back to just 200k votes.
To be fair, I know I am reading far too much into a few overheard conversations from a three-day stay in an area whose local voters, most of whom are on the Federal Government payroll, overwhelmingly voted Democrat, but hey, if you can’t trust the opinion of the guy serving you a few pints of Yeungling, who the hell can you trust?
Not the President of the USA if it is raining, it seems.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney